Tod Browning‘s frequent collaborator Waldemar Young wrote the screenplay for The Mystic from Browning’s story, and it is clearly part their family of work together which includes The Unholy Three (1925), The Blackbird (1926), The Show (1927), The Unknown (1927), London After Midnight (1927), West of Zanzibar (1928), and Where East is East (1929). The early knife-throwing act seen here could be a blueprint for the same act in The Unknown. The Mystic (1925) opens in a Hungarian gypsy carnival. The main attraction of the carnival is “The Mystic,” Zara (Aileen Pringle). Zara is part of a trio which includes Poppa Zazarack (Mitchell Lewis) and Zara’s lover Anton (Robert Ober). Of course, Zara’s clairvoyant act is all illusion and Browning, as usual, lets his audience in on the trickery almost from the outset.
Conman Michale Nash (Conway Tearle) approaches the trio with a proposal to take their act to America, where they can bilk naive, rich Manhattanites out of their fortunes. The New Yorkers make Zara’s seances a hit, although not all of the natives are so gullible, and the police are secretly investigating the scam. To complicate matters, Nash puts the moves on Zara, and Anton is pushed aside. Love does funny things, and soon Nash develops a conscience. He becomes reluctant to swindle a young heiress. The ever-jealous Zara believes Nash must want her for himself; but, Nash simply wants to reform and make a better, honest life for Zara. Their relationship is reminiscent of the one between Priscilla Dean and Wheeler Oakman in Browning’s Outside The Law (1920), as are the familiar Browning themes of reformation and unpunished crimes.
Pringle shows considerable screen charisma; or, at least, Browning draws it out of her here. Her performance compares to other great female roles in Browning’s ouevre: Joan Crawford in The Unknown and Lupe Velez in Where East is East. In many scenes, such as the knife throwing scene, Pringle looks remarkably like Crawford; in close-ups, Pringle exudes the same soft sensuality and subtle anguish. In other scenes, Pringle shares the bubbly quality that we see later in Velez’s performance. At other times Pringle calls to mind the mysterious exoticism of Edna Tichenor. Unfortunately, Pringle and Browning never got to work together again. The actress was reportedly difficult to work with; most of her co-stars considered he an intellectual snob. Indeed, she kept company with many of the artisans and intellectuals of her day. George Gershwin and H.L. Mencken were among her notable lovers and she was married, briefly, to author James M. Cain. Pringle’s acting career never really took off, and she didn’t seem to care. She remained active in films (mostly small parts, which included uncredited roles) up until the mid 1940s and died in 1989 at the age of 94.
Because of the lack of usual Browning stars, The Mystic is an interesting, lesser known film in the director’s canon. Not only is it thematically related to his other films, but it also shows the idiosyncratic continuity of his taste in actresses and his ability to mold actors, whoever they were.
Note: the luxurious costumes for The Mystic were the work of legendary French designer Erté. Erté, who was a big fan of Georges Méliès, later said it was a thrilling experience to collaborate with such a distinguished surrealist as Tod Browning.